28 Mar 2018

New Delhi: Smog in the City

We used New Delhi as our arrival and departure point for our 24-day India itinerary, but spent our longest period of time in the city during a 4-day stay in the middle of our circuit. If you’re in northern India, it’s hard to avoid coming through Delhi multiple times while visiting other cities, which can feel a bit restricting.

We didn’t enjoy New Delhi very much. It’s the third-largest city in the world by population, more than twice as populous as New York City. While it has a very nice, new metro system, and extensive links to the country’s rail system, it doesn’t have much other infrastructure to make it easy or enjoyable to get around. In general, we really enjoy walking to explore new places, and that was tough here: most roads have no sidewalks (or sidewalks that are now parking lots), there are touts constantly trying to talk to you, even outside touristy areas, and everywhere is busy.

We finally found a couple of nice respites from the chaos, but nothing that would make us want to visit again.

What We Did in New Delhi

Arrival: As a wonderful Christmas present from my parents, we had booked the very fancy Metropolitan Hotel in New Delhi for our one night between arriving from Kuala Lumpur and departing via an overnight train to Varanasi. Unfortunately we didn’t end up arriving until after midnight, since our flight was a bit delayed which caused us to miss the last metro train of the night, and then we struggled to successfully get an Uber at the Delhi airport. After three separate attempts we finally got one who came to the designated meeting point and then made the (scary) drive that felt more like driving in Mario Kart than on a busy highway or through heavy city traffic to our hotel near Connaught Place.

Our booking came with a free two hour late check-out, and free breakfast, both of which we took full advantage of to soak in the luxury and delay going outside. Similar to when we spent one night in a nice hotel to start our Buenos Aires time, it was really refreshing and totally worth it.

Sadly, we did have to check out eventually, and still well before our evening train. We decided to make the short walk from the hotel to Connaught Place, one of the epicenters of New Delhi commerce, and pretty much immediately regretted it. On the 15-minute walk we had two separate touts try much harder to insinuate themselves with us than we’ve experienced anywhere else on our trip. The second, in particular, spent a full 10 minutes talking to us while we walked, including a long spiel about how sad it is that so many Indians bother tourists all the time just to try to make money off them. Of course, he then tried to direct us to a travel agency that he would get a commission from if we entered. 🙃

I honestly thought we were pretty hardened to touts after 6+ months traveling, including a lot of time in Southeast Asia, but our experience in India has been on a whole other level. In other places I took pride in at least acknowledging the existence of people trying to speak to me, giving them a polite “no thanks” and moving on. In India, no amount of saying “no” matters, and any eye contact is an invitation for the tout/tuktuk driver/random “helper” to follow you for multiple minutes trying to get your business. By the end of our 3+ weeks in India we had perfected the keep-moving, stare-straight-ahead, ignore-everything trance that seems to work best to keep people at bay. Amy eventually tried the phrase “ram ram”, “I don’t want anything from you” in Hindi, with them after a tour guide in Jaipur recommended it and as a last resort this seemed effective.

After finding a brief refuge from the harassment at a Nando’s to have some lunch, we ended up taking an almost 8 mile walk down to the famed India Gate, along the long equivalent of our National Mall, and to the Ministries of Defence and Home Affairs beside the Parliament. At each stop along our walk we were, without fail, asked to take photos mostly by groups of men but occasionally by families too. This was true everywhere we went in India and felt strange and sometimes a little creepy each time. We always declined, which led to some unsanctioned selfie attempts. It sounds a little silly but this was just one thing that adds to the exhaustion. Finally we looped back to Connaught Place and recharging briefly in a Starbucks. We were pretty sad to resort to two western chains right off the bat, as we typically ignore them as much as possible, but it was sorely needed as an escape.

We had planned to hang out in our hotel’s lobby for a while before heading to the train station, but a large wedding party had arrived for a reception in the courtyard and we felt very out of place. We grabbed our bags out of storage and took a taxi the short distance to New Delhi Railway Station (NDLS), arriving around 6:30pm… where we ended up with a not-very-fun wait until our train departed after 11:00pm.

Day 1: After visiting Varanasi, Agra, Jaipur, and Jaisalmer, we arrived back in Delhi fresh off an overnight train. Unlike our one night of luxury on arrival in India, we were back to staying within our budget and stayed at the Orania B&B in south Delhi, near Hauz Khas Village. While we were ticketed to travel all the way to the Old Delhi Junction station, we got off about 45 minutes early at Delhi Cantt station and took an Uber from there, arriving to our hotel just a few minutes after our train would have pulled in to our planned destination. (The rare case of something working out well for us in India!)

Since we had slept unusually badly on our overnight train, we only had the energy to grab takeout sandwiches from a Wimpy down the block from our hotel. A British burger chain, their vegetarian Channa Masala “Burgers” were actually quite good. We ended up wishing we had fast food like it back in the U.S.

After recharging a bit, we walked over to Hauz Khas District Park, which was honestly the first enjoyable, free, public green space we’ve found in over two weeks in India. With pathways circling a lake and shady fields scattered with families and friend groups chatting and playing badminton, it was actually peaceful and enjoyable. Not a single person tried to take our photo, and the blatant staring at Amy was at a minimum.

We hadn’t really adjusted to an Indian eating schedule during our time here, so we were pretty hungry by 7:00pm and stopped at Naivedyam right nearby, which promises southern Indian food (a region we aren’t visiting on this trip) and ended up being quite good. Our favorite part of the meal was definitely their Gulab Jamun dessert, served warm in a pool of rosewater sugar water, which just melts in your mouth. We had a handful of them in different places on our circuit around northern India and these we by far the best.

Day 2: After three different partial days in Delhi, this was our first full day and we were looking forward to exploring a bit more to see if we could find enjoyable areas and new, interesting food. Our first stop was the closest metro station to our hotel, about a ten-minute walk, where we bought unlimited 3-day travel cards available only to tourists. We had read they were only 250 rupees (~4 USD) per person, but they ended up costing us 450 rupees (~7 USD) each, which means they were definitely a worse deal than just paying as we went, but oh well.

A word on the metro: It is everything Delhi (and greater India) is not. It is immaculately clean, efficient, and isn’t suffocating crowded. Amy would still get plenty of stares, and we got a couple of creepy photo takers, but otherwise it was an easy, tame experience. We came to feel like it was a refuge from the chaos above, breathing a sigh of relief every time we got back to a station and descended. On our last full day, Amy went so far as to ride in the female only car that is at the front of most trains to escape the constant, unrelenting stares of the men around us. I of course had to ride with the men one car back but it seemed like a great respite for her and they just weren’t as interested in me.

The embodiment of the feeling of relief that you get to escape back underground.

Our first destination was Old Delhi, which I for some reason believed it would be enjoyable to wander around. Full of shops, food stalls, and market alleyways it was exactly the kind of place we sought out in Vietnam and Thailand. Here, everything was dirtier, less interesting, and came with a heaping dose of people staring at us or trying to bother us. We walked enough to know we didn’t want to explore any more and then made a beeline for Old Famous Jalebiwala, a street stall famous for its decades of making delicious jalebis–deep fried dough in sugar syrup. We found it, bought two piping hot ones for 0.75 USD each, and loved them. They’re a bit overwhelmingly sweet, and we probably could have split one, but they were great.

We then hustled back to the metro and made our way to Khas Market, a block of shops and restaurants that is apparently a favorite of expats and wealthy indians. Very different than anywhere else we’ve been in India, there were restaurants above nearly every storefront and pedestrian-only areas that don’t allow motorbikes. It’s not a huge area, but well worth visiting for its concentration of restaurants. We ate at Sodabottleopenerwala a hip cafe apparently based on an old Mumbai tradition of persian-influenced casual restaurants. They had unique takes on a lot of the more traditional meals we’ve been trying on our journey through India and everything we had was really good.

Left: Old Famous Jalebiwala. Right: Khas Market.

After another break back at our hotel, we set out to find dinner. I had two places I’d found online and wanted to try that didn’t look too far away on the map. Our first option wasn’t open yet when we got there (6:45pm is not really dinner time here yet, a fact our stomachs refuse to acknowledge), and after 45 minutes of hungry walking we got to where our back-up option was located… and couldn’t find it. We ended up wandering through the Shahpur Jat Village for another 45 minutes, impressed at the volume of colorful clothing for sale and depressed at the total absence of restaurants of any kind. I’m not sure if there are weirdly-strict zoning laws, or if everyone just eats at home for every meal, but we were really struggling. We eventually made it back to our first choice, Little Saigon, and had thoroughly-mediocre vegetarian phở that left us still hungry. Pretty over-it at this point, we got a 1 USD Uber back toward our hotel, picked up some more of Wimpy’s Channa Masala “Burgers” and filled up back in the peace of our hotel room.

Day 3: We spent our morning taking advantage of a quality internet connection–a rarity during our stay–and then headed back to Khas Market, where we wanted to try another of the many restaurants. Our meal at Smoke House Deli was quite good, and was another interesting mix of traditional Indian food and other influences. It’s a small Delhi chain that seems to be geared toward Indian businessmen and their dates, and ended up being one of our most expensive meals in India.

We then walked down to Lodhi Garden, which we had intended to visit the prior day before getting too tired out. We were glad we went back, as it ended up being really nice. About the same size at Hauz Khas District Park, it’s even nicer and even more relaxed. The tree-lined paths around centuries-old monuments weren’t crowded, and its really comparable to some of the South American parks we enjoyed so much earlier in our trip. It is definitely a hotspot for local couples, getting some rare alone time away from their families whilst hidden between the bushes and amongst the trees.

Lodhi Park

For dinner, we made the short walk from our hotel to Evergreen Sweet House, which has a full-service restaurant above its ground-floor sweet shop. It ended up being, by far, our favorite restaurant in India. It was full of young Indian families and older locals, the service was both polite and efficient, the food was great, and the prices geared toward locals instead of tourists. This kind of place is what we have felt is missing everywhere we go–just good, solid, affordable food for the middle class. We had the best sweet lime sodas we’ve had in India, a yummy dosa and another Thali, which came with a delectable Gulab Jamun dessert. We were completely stuffed, happy, and only out 8 USD total, including a small tip.

Left: Our expensive Thali at Naivedyam. Right: Our wonderful cheap Thali at Evergreen Sweet House.

Day 4: Our final full day in Delhi, we made ourselves visit the Red Fort, one of the top attractions in all of New Delhi. With its main entrance right beside the Lal Quila metro stop, we got to take our favorite mode of transport there as well. We made sure to leave early, since information online talks about it taking 3-4 hours to properly appreciate, which ended up being very wrong. At least half of the buildings normally accessible to tourists were closed for renovations while we were there, and after exploring every part we did have access to we were heading back outside exactly an hour after entering. At 15 USD for two, it wasn’t worth it, especially after seeing such similar architecture all over Agra and Jaipur.

After the disappointment of the Red Fort, we treated ourselves to another meal at Evergreen Sweet House for lunch, which did not disappoint. For our final evening in Delhi, we walked back to Hauz Khas District Park, this time venturing into the Hauz Khas Fort ruins and enjoying that scenery. For dinner, we went to Hauz Khas Social, which ended up being the hippest place we’ve been in in a long time… and not quite our style. It wasn’t bad, but was definitely trying too hard.

Hauz Khas Fort

Day 5: We woke up early, made the short walk with our backpacks to the metro, and got to New Delhi Railway Station with plenty of time before our train departed toward Shimla.

Departure: Our final hours in New Delhi came between the early morning arrival of our overnight train back from Shimla and the evening departure of our onward flight to Tokyo. We had originally conceived of the day as a chance to store our luggage at the train station upon arrival and spend the day revisiting our favorite spots in Delhi one last time before departure. In reality, we didn’t have anywhere we were dying to revisit and correctly predicted our exhausted, so we booked a day-use hotel room near the airport and spent 8 hours using the fast internet to catch up on our blog, to nap and shower, and to get ready for Japan.

How We Did with Our Budget in Delhi

For our time in Delhi, we had budgeted as much as 45 USD a night for accommodations. We ended up spending 48 USD per night for room at Orania, including breakfast, which ended up being a fine hotel but not somewhere we’d look forward to staying again. We also spent 64 USD on 8 hours of a hotel room beside the airport, which we had leftover entertainment budget to spend on.

We had also budgeted 10 USD per day per person for food and 10 USD per day per person for entertainment. Out of that planned 40 USD total, we ended up spending 39 USD per day on average, with a big change in our spending habits as meals ended up being much more expensive in Delhi than elsewhere on our circuit through northern India. For restaurant meals, we averaged 14 USD total, more than quadruple our average in Jaipur.

How We Did with Our Budget in India Overall

For our 24 days in India overall, we had budgeted a total of 55 USD per day per person on average including accommodations, train trips, entertainment, and food. We ended up spending significantly less than originally planned on train tickets (since we dropped a number of trips entirely) and slightly less on food than planned, leaving us with 281 USD in surplus that we can use at future stops. To be honest, we probably would have met our budget if we’d felt like there was more worth spending money on, but we didn’t force ourselves to go to every temple or fort along the way.

I feel like this accurately captures my feelings about Delhi.